McNeill on Morgan: La Jolla Historical Society speaker focuses on American architect Julia Morgan

American architect Julia Morgan (1872-1957) is considered a pioneer in both the Women’s Movement and the architecture profession.

She was the first woman to earn a degree from the École des Beaux-Arts in France in the late 1800s. She is credited with giving legitimacy to women’s causes and evolving public presence in the first few decades of the 1900s. She designed the Hearst Castle in San Simeon and oversaw its construction over more than 20 years, in addition to designing more than 700 buildings in her lifetime.

And she was the focus of the La Jolla Historical Society’s Ellen Browning Scripps luncheon, Oct. 20 at the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club, at which Karen McNeill, Ph.D, discussed Morgan’s legacy under the theme: “Designing Women’s Spaces from San Diego to the Redwood Forest.”

La Jolla Historical Society executive director Heath Fox told La Jolla Light: “Julia Morgan was a contemporary of Ellen Browning Scripps (1836-1932), and like her, worked for the advancement of society through Progressive Era-ideas of how women could expand and strengthen their roles in communities.

“Both were sensitive to the importance of architecture — Julia in her own right as a practitioner, and Ellen in her patronage of architect Irving Gill’s building designs for community-based organizations. Both women are prominent in the early 20th century history of California.”

The afternoon’s guest speaker, McNeill, is a historian based in Oakland, and an expert on Morgan. During her talk, she said Morgan was born in San Francisco and grew up in Oakland.

In 1894, Morgan graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in civil engineering. “She was the only woman to do so that year and the fifth woman to do so in the school’s history,” McNeill said with a smile.

In 1896, Morgan wanted to go to the École des Beaux-Arts in France, one of the most prestigious architecture programs in the world at that time. But there was just one problem ... “They didn’t admit women,” McNeil explained. “Still, Morgan persevered and was the first woman to be admitted and earn a degree. In her time at that institution, she drove the faculty nuts, which most Americans did at the time, because she mixed and matched styles. And in the École they were religious with a particular style.”

Not one to conform, Morgan would mix Classical, Renaissance and Gothic styles in her designs.

And while she is perhaps most famous for her involvement with Hearst Castle, Morgan designed houses, churches, schools, commercial establishment, hospitals and at least 80 buildings for women’s clubs.

McNeill said Morgan’s work in the Women’s Movement before World War I helped women amplify their public presence in the early 19th Century. Her buildings in California — which include the Director’s Cottage at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography — were intended to blend in with the natural environment. In showing a photo of one of her houses, McNeill said: “It emerges from the landscape, rather than being a forceful expression of people on the landscape.”

Morgan designed a “women’s hall” on the UC Berkeley campus when women started to attend the school, to provide a place for them to gather, exchange ideas and hold sorority meetings. She also designed “hostess houses” in cities up and down California for the those who followed military members as they went from base to base during World War I.

But her passion project was designing homes for the steadily increasing number of Young Women’s Christian Association chapters. (YWCAs are the counterpart to YMCAs.) At least eight of California’s YWCAs were designed by Morgan, half of which still stand.

The Riverside YWCA, McNeill said, was a “political statement” in that the man who had control of its development, Frank Miller, was obsessed with the Mission style. “He was quite insistent that any public building be designed in this style. He donated the land, but said it had to be attached to the auditorium because he assumed women would serve those in the auditorium and in that style,” she explained.

“Julia helped the women of Riverside push back the boundaries of propriety against Frank Miller. So Morgan designed the building in an eclectic mix, going back to her École days. Her building is much starker than the Mission-style Miller had been commissioning, sat detached from the auditorium, and in its gable, there was a pool. Talk about an expression of freedom! It was women’s independence at large.”

Other works by Morgan that still stand, and were re-purposed, include churches and residential developments up and down the state.

Morgan died in 1957 and is buried in the Bay Area.

“In 2013, she was awarded the AIA Gold Medal, one of North America’s most prestigious awards in the architectural profession,” McNeill said. “The recognition came 56 years after she died and 106 years after the creation of the award ... but she did it.”

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